- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

By Daniel Richter
Harvard University Press, $26, 317 pages, illus.

The telling of American Indian history has changed more in the last 15 or so years than in the 50 years before that. Ethnography and environmental studies especially have opened new understandings, but the most fundamental insights have come from a healthy and commonsensical respect for the Native Americans' perspective their interests, social assumptions and spiritual world. Daniel Richter's masterful new book, "Facing East From Indian Country: A Native History of Early America," brings together the best recent research and reimagines events by "facing East," standing with Indian peoples and watching the juggernaut of European change roll toward them. The view from that standpoint not only broadens our understanding. It wrenches it into a new shape.
For obvious reasons recapturing a native perspective is difficult. The vast bulk of written evidence is from whites. Indian voices in those documents are spoken only to and for whites and heard only through white ears. There are native oral traditions, but to some degree they have mutated through time. And always there is the deplorable impulse to force the Indian experience to fit maudlin sympathies and shallow fantasies.
Mr. Richter, director of the University of Pennsylvania's McNeil Center for Early American Studies, recognizes all these limits and works within them. He pieces together what we can reasonably know, speculates thoughtfully on what might have been, admits what is beyond our reach, then takes that last step of suggesting how an American narrative east of the Mississippi might be retold, not from the coast inward, but from the inside looking out.
The author hooks the reader fairly early with a chapter telling freshly the stories of three anomalous Indian individuals we do know something about, starting with Pocahontas. Certainly the story of the Virginia princess, smitten with John Smith, saving him from her father's wrath is pure bosh. Mr. Richter considers native customs and diplomacy of the time and argues instead that she was a dutiful pawn in the great chief Powhatan's attempt to establish a viable and mutual arrangement with the English newcomers.
When the English misunderstood and rejected the overture, Pocahontas played out her role to its sad end of an early death in England. Mr. Richter's take on Kateri Tekakwitha, the "Lily of the Mohawks" currently considered by the Vatican for sainthood, stresses the Indians' inventive search for spiritual amalgams, part native and part Christian, to give comfort and to make sense of a terrible time. Metacom, a Wampanoag called King Philip by New Englanders, was reviled as a treacherous butcher after his bloody war against Puritan settlements in 1676. A better bet, Mr. Richter writes, is of a flexible and perceptive leader fighting a last ditch effort to preserve an accommodation that allowed some cultural integrity.
This fascinating chapter is a model of Mr. Richter's central theme. With Europeans' first footfalls on the continent, they and native peoples embarked on separate but mutual creations. Europeans stumbled into a world with an old history (which Mr. Richter ably sketches at the opening), but in a sense it was quickly new. Drawn to European trade goods and intrigued by diplomatic possibilities, devastated by epidemics and beset by environmental upheavals, adopting white settlers and the Christian God into their villages and cosmos, native peoples reordered their economies, restructured their societies, and recast their visions of the supernatural.
The strong core of this book is Mr. Richter's incisive description of the cultural transformations spun off in the process among scores of native peoples. Together they formed new views of the world's possibilities, whether of how to dress and hunt and worship or how everything might unravel and all good be lost. The latter chapters move back to traditional events, the role of Indians in North American imperial wars and in the American Revolution and the republic's early relations with Indian America. Now, however, the meanings and the feel of the wars, treaties, and exchanges are at least muddier and often entirely inverted.
Told while facing East, a narrative of early America is one of everyone on all sides inventing themselves, with Indian peoples often the most imaginative and flexible. A story usually told with an air of inevitability becomes one of missed opportunities, one after another, and so is infinitely more tragic.

Elliott West is professor of history at the University of Arkansas.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide